SCHUMANN Symphonies 1-4
Yannick Nézet-Séguin here offers true ‘Schumann-lite’ in performances that pay close attention to detail but don’t stint on personality. What we are given are ‘The Symphonies’, as emblazoned on the booklet cover, largely as they have come to be best known: that is to say, with the revised (1851) version of No 4 rather than the leaner original (1841) as preferred by Brahms, even if Clara Schumann demurred.
These are live performances (applause is excised) but only the most pedantic of headphones-listeners will spot one or two moments of string insecurity in extremis. Nézet-Séguin is but one of the new generation of conductors who have demonstrated their love and understanding of Schumann’s music in readings that offer ample quantities of intellect and intuitiveness – head and heart. Dausgaard, of course, is another; mention might also be made of Daniel Harding, whose Second at last year’s Proms with the Mahler CO really did reveal the thoroughbred that was in danger of being obscured by the old warhorse; and Robin Ticciati, whose exploration of these works with the Scottish CO, we believe, will be revealed to the record-buying public later this year.
Nézet-Séguin’s comments in the booklet demonstrate that he has paid close attention to perceived problems of balance in Schumann’s symphonies. He accordingly adopts a string body numbering 9 9 6 5 4, which he says enables, for one thing, a balance of lightness and agitato in those many passages of string tremolo, as well as facilitating swifter speeds. And it’s true: he seems to find the tempo giusto in virtually every case, even allowing himself an unscheduled accelerando at the end of the Second’s first movement. Slow movements provide repose without cloying, while scherzos and finales are irresistibly light-footed. Potential pitfalls are seemingly effortlessly skirted around: the obsessive rhythms of the Second, say, or the winding slower sections of the Fourth, which in the wrong hands can sometimes seem aimless.
Nézet-Séguin’s response to Schumann’s sound strategies are most revealing in the Rhenish. Giulini, his teacher, averred that the inner-string repeated quavers at the outset should sound like the splash of a paddleboat on the river. And here they do just that, compared with Dausgaard’s more driven performance, where they bring more to mind the blades of a helicopter. Nor does the so-called Cologne Cathedral movement want for majesty from these slimmed-down forces: the first appearance in the work of the three trombones, it also introduces as a new sonority (from about 0'45") sustained strings with first violins in high octaves. Played largely senza vibrato, these could sound bleached but instead ratchet up the sun-drenched intensity of the movement, not least when it slips into 3/2 at around 1'55" and introduces the theme in diminution as a seven-note inner-string figure, here played molto marcato for maximum contrast, helping to build to a well-achieved catharsis before the finale ties up all the symphony’s contrapuntal loose ends.
Good, too, to hear repeats observed – especially in the Fourth’s finale, where it can still take one by surprise. Schumann-lite this may be; but it now becomes a heavyweight contender in a far from uncrowded corner of the market.